Public Policy Updates: February 2021 Board of Ed

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education had a two part meeting in February; there was a special meeting Monday evening, February 22, specifically on vocational education, followed by a regular meeting Tuesday morning, February 23

 Monday evening's discussion was designed to inform the Board ahead of proposed regulations coming to them in March or April, before going out to public comment ahead of submission back to the Board for final adoption in June. The presentation is available online here. The presentation began by reviewing the various types of vocational and technical options available in Massachusetts: innovation pathways, early college, three shifts of career tech ed (after dark, adult tech, expansion of ch. 74). Regional pathways are always connected to the labor market of the area, with 44 programs in 11 clusters in schools across Massachusetts.

There are two types of programs in Massachusetts--Perkins (federal dollars) and Chapter 74 (though the two may overlap); it is Mass General Law Chapter 74, sec. 1 that gives the Commissioner authority to set "conditions of admission." This is in regulation as 603 CMR 4.03. "Selective vocational technical secondary schools" can run admission via lottery or through a selective criteria, which must include grades, attendance, disciplinary record, recommendation from sending school counselor, may include interview, though nothing can be worth more than 50%. Very few or no schools use a lottery process.

The Board passed a first round of changes to regulation last year; this round has started with collecting and sorting waitlist data.

There are some questions asked on expansion--some is new programs, while some are additional seats. Also questioned was if students attending pursue these careers specifically, or if a wide range of students are admitted; it is the latter.

In the 2019 school year, the Department looked at how reflective such schools are of their catchment areas; generally they are, but there is room for improvement, especially in Gateway Cities. In walking through the admission process step by step, the Department has, for the 40 schools looked at, been able to track the degree to which students apply, are invited to attend, and attend regional vocational programs broken down by demographic group. Students of color, economically disadvantaged students, English learners, and students whose first language isn't English all accept offers of admission at slightly higher rates than their non-group counterparts. The breakdown by schools vary widely than the breakdown statewide.

Member Lombos noted that this discussion aligns with the Board's work on anti-racism and bias. The Board will again discuss this matter in March or April.

On Tuesday morning, the Board heard public testimony from a few parents asking for alterations in state guidance; one said, "We simply have to change our mindset when it comes to risk tolerance." They also heard comments regarding the charter schools being considered from renewal, as well as a comment on the vocational education regulations.

In his comments on schools, Commissioner Riley said it was his intent to return to the Board in the next few weeks with requested emergency changes to the time on learning regulations, ending hybrid and remote models of learning (Note: he later amended this to comment that families may be allowed to retain remote learning for this school year.) Ideally, K-5 would be phased in full time five days a week by April. Member Hills was quick to endorse this, adding that he does "not [want the Board] even talking about this issue going into the next school year." Member Lombos observed the differences in resources available to districts, to which the Commissioner said they would be addressed, and spoke on the state's order of air purifers. 

 All matters dealing with charter schools passed.

The emergency time on learning regulation changed were passed into permanence with Coughlin, Stewart, Lombos, and Fern├índez in opposition, Coughlin having noted that students were most impacted and were not consulted, Fern├índez noting that they seemed no longer to be necessary, and Lombos commenting that this ddid not meeting the mental health needs being cited.

Finally, the Board heard a budget update from CFO Bill Bell, who noted that Chapter 70 aid is up $198M in the FY22 budget (over last year's actual; it is down nearly $100M from last January's proposed). There is a $22M increase in the appropriation for circuit breaker, as SOA implementation lowers the ceiling for circuit breaker and phases in including transportation; there is likewise a $26M increase in appropriation for charter school reimbursement. State COVID aid will come out in two waves of $25M in February and April. All eyes are on the federal government regarding possible passage of a third wave of federal aid. The Governor's proposed budget allows towns and cities to count some district ESSER aid towards their local contribution, which has caused some confusion. It remains to be seen if that will be the case in the House and Senate budgets. Member Stewart asked about the major needs of districts; have these been assessed? 

The Board next meets on Tuesday, March 23.